[2006-05-29] “Softwar”

I did not want to read “Softwar” by Matthew Symonds at first. I thought it would be just like the numerous other biographies endorsed by their subjects that are so common these days and that are utterly banal and filled with nauseating flattery of their subjects. I also felt a bit weird for some reason reading about the company (and its CEO) that employed me.

However, I could not help but notice that the book was receiving rave reviews almost everywhere and that it was written by the former technology editor and the current political editor of The Economist. The Economist is about the only general magazine I have a very high regard for and surely one of its editors cannot possibly write something completely trashy. So I picked up the book curious to see if it really delivers on its promise of “an intimate portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle”.

It does. Sometimes it's uncomfortably frank and a bit too intimate. Matthew travelled with Larry for over a year and was allowed to attend even confidential internal company meetings and meetings with customers. Apparently Larry was not allowed to edit the text but was allowed to have his say in numerous footnotes on almost every page. I am seeing this technique for the first time and I must say its very effective. The book is filled with numerous insights into the life of Larry and the workings of Oracle, most of which were new for yours truly who has been working for Oracle for over three and a half years now. This book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in learning how a big company can work efficiently and continue to grow even under adverse conditions. It is surely a must-read for anyone who has a relationship with Oracle (employee, customer, vendor, etc.) and those in the media who write about Larry and Oracle. The picture of Larry and Oracle that emerges from this book is quite different from what the media and the IT analysts would have you believe.

The book is a bit verbose and unnecessarily repetitive at times. It could have easily been reduced to about half its size without losing anything. I personally found the chronology of events a bit hard to track and the detailed descriptions of yachting and boat racing rather boring. I thought the book spent an unfair amount of time on the Oracle E-Business Suite (“Apps”) compared to the RDBMS server and the Application Server. Perhaps that was because Apps was the primary focus of Oracle's marketing thrust during the time this book was written and Larry must have been obsessed with it at that time. Written by a British author, I also found the use of American English a bit confusing - perhaps I just happened to read the American reprint.

For someone working in the Server Technologies division of Oracle (which makes the RDBMS server, the Application Server, etc.), I found this book to be an eye-opener on just what Apps is all about, the inherent complexities in creating something like it and the hurdles faced in marketing such a beast especially when its integrated suite approach is so different from the best-of-breed approach favoured by conventional wisdom (and system integrators who make tonnes of money this way). I also learnt about some Oracle gods like Dirk “Derry” Kabcenell and Andy Mendelsohn. I found out that Larry was actually technically involved in the database for a long time and that could be the reason he was listed as a co-inventor in some patents on database technologies instead of pure vanity as I had assumed so far.

Other Posts from 2006